The Winnowing Of The Churches
Some Christians lament the way the Nashville Statement compels Evangelical churches to take sides on the issue of LGBTs in the church. I disagree, because I strongly believe that this is a make-or-break issue for the church in this time and place. I explain why in a chapter of The Benedict Option. Excerpts:
Sexual practices are so central to the Christian life that when believers cease to affirm orthodoxy on the matter, they often cease to be meaningfully Christian. It was the countercultural force of Christian sexuality that overturned the pagan world’s dehumanizing practices. Christianity taught that the body is sacred and that the dignity possessed by all humans as made in the image of God required treating it as such.
This is why the modern repaganization called the Sexual Revolution can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. Alas, that revolution has toppled the church’s authority in the broader culture and is now shaking the church itself to its foundations. Christians living the Benedict Option must commit themselves resolutely to resistance and to helping each other do the same.
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among the People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” Chastity—the rightly ordered use of the gift of sexuality—was the greatest distinction setting Christians of the early church apart from the pagan world.
The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what a person does with their sexuality cannot be separated from what a person is. In a sense, moderns believe the same thing, but from a perspective entirely different from the early church’s.
In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says
the body was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. Whether this pulse of energy came from benevolent gods or from malevolent demons (as many radical Christians believed) sex could never be seen as a thing for the isolated human body alone.
Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not only come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.
To be modern, as we have seen, is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self- definition. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).”
Gay marriage and gender ideology signify the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because they deny Christian anthropology at its core and shatter the authority of the Bible. Rightly ordered sexuality is not at the core of Christianity, but as [Philip] Rieff saw, it’s so near to the center that to lose the Bible’s clear teaching on this matter is to risk losing the fundamental integrity of the faith. This is why Christians who begin by rejecting sexual orthodoxy end either by rejecting Christianity themselves or by laying the groundwork for their children to do so.
There’s more, but that’s the gist of it. It is true that the historic creeds of the church do not address sexuality directly, but that is not to say that sexual morality is one of the things we can agree to disagree about. As I say above, it cannot be disentangled from what a person is, which is to say, what Man is. Christian anthropology depends on this.
Plus, the Bible could hardly be clearer on the matter, so to defy it on this requires seriously undercutting its authority.
LGBT-affirming progressives within the churches also agree, I think, with the idea that one’s sexuality cannot be disentangled from what a person is — and for that reason believe that affirming one’s sexuality and gender identity is required to affirm one’s full humanity. The difference is that orthodox Christians and progressive ones disagree about what it means to be ideally human.
This is no small thing. It is no small thing for either side.
I’m sure there are conservative Christians who hold to orthodoxy and also despise gays and lesbians. To the best of my knowledge, every Christian I know who holds to orthodoxy does so with a divided heart, wanting to show love to their gay friends and family, but not at the cost of what they believe to be objective truth, and obedience to God.
In my circles, conservative Christians understand how big the ask is of LGBT people. I don’t get the impression that liberal Christians understand how big the ask is of traditionalists. I could be wrong about that, but I rarely read, see, or hear any acknowledgement that there is any reason for trads to hold firm to orthodoxy, other than irrational hatred.
There is no way to reconcile these positions. Whatever individual congregants may believe subjectively, a congregation and a church has to come down on one side or the other regarding same-sex weddings. As the liberal Evangelical David Gushee has rightly written:
It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.
Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.
He’s right about that. And as I write above, it is absolutely not the case, as some Christians wish to believe, that affirming same-sex relationships and marriages is simply a matter of taking the standard heterosexual form and moving it to the side to include same-sex couples. Whether you want to believe so or not, regarding same-sex relationships as the equivalent of heterosexual ones has profound implications for the internal structure of Christian theology. This is a very big deal.
But, again, if you are a sexually active gay person or what they call an “ally,” it is a very big deal for a church to say no, your desires are disordered, you cannot marry someone of your sex, and you have to be celibate all your life. It was always a big deal, but now, with society having shifted radically in its attitude toward gays and lesbians, Christian orthodoxy must seem intolerable.
Here’s my point: neutrality is not an option, nor is polite half-acceptance, nor is avoiding the subject.
That’s why I agree with ChurchClarity.org, a new website designed for LGBT and LGBT-affirming Christians to help them figure out if a particular congregation is affirming or not. According to the website:
There are millions of churches around the world. They represent a wide spectrum of beliefs, which are translated into actively enforced policies. At the level of the local church, policies are often communicated unclearly, if they disclosed at all. In many churches, especially evangelical ones, clarity is elusive.
In the first phase of Church Clarity, our focus is on policies that directly impact LGBTQ+ people.
Church Clarity is not advocating for policy changes. Together, we’re establishing a new standard for church policy disclosure: We believe that churches have a responsibility to be clear about their policies on their primary websites. Following a simple, yet consistent method, our crowdsourcers submit churches to be scored on how clearly their website communicates their actively enforced policies. Once the information is verified by Church Clarity, it is published to our database.
How does an unclear policy harm people?
No person should have to wonder the limits of their “welcome.” The vulnerability entailed in investing into a community is difficult enough — LGBTQ+ people should not have to constantly worry about when the other shoe is going to drop. Even when directly asked, many church leaders do not give straightforward answers about the church’s policies towards LGBTQ+ people. It often takes multiple conversations and years of relationship-building before clarity is delivered — and by then, the damage is already done. It is unreasonable to expect people to jump through hoops to learn how policies that affect them will be enforced.
I think this is fair. And it is also fair to orthodox Christians who are new to a congregation, and who deserve clarity about where the congregation stands. They too should not have to constantly worry about when the other shoe is going to drop.
This is important:
What do you mean by LGBTQ?
We mean all lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer identities. A church website that contains non-affirming policy language addressing either sexuality or gender will be scored as “non-affirming.” If, for example, a church policy permits some gay individuals to fully participate in leadership and liturgy so long as they are pursuing celibacy, but does not permit those who aren’t pursuing celibacy, its policy would be scored as “non-affirming.” To be scored as “affirming,” a policy must affirm all expressions of the LGBTQ+ spectrum and address both sexuality and gender, either specifically or with the common acronyms. How’s that for clear?
Why do you evaluate church “policies” and not, say, “doctrine”?
Church Clarity is not interested in evaluating theology or doctrine, but rather organizational policy. Policies are much more straightforward and have clear impact on people. Will your church let a trans woman join a women’s group? Will your pastoral team officiate a wedding for a gay couple? These are the policy questions we are seeking to clarify. What we’re not interested in: A church’s theological position on whether queer Christians go to heaven, whether same-sex attraction is natural or chosen, how gender plays out in the story of Adam and Eve, etc. You get the point. Conversations around LGBTQ+ issues often drift needlessly into theological debate. That is why we painstakingly emphasize our laser focus on evaluating the level of clarity in regards to a church’s actively enforced policy.
It’s pretty clear that Church Clarity is interested in policing churches from the Christian left. If this were a conservative Christian website, there would be no end of caterwauling from the media and elsewhere about these horrible conservative inquisitors, blah blah blah. This site will be greeted by those same people as a tool for advancing social justice. I can live with that hypocrisy, and still be glad for the clarity this site provides, and compels congregations to embrace.
It’s important. This matters. This winnowing is sad and painful, and is going to be even sadder and more painful. But it can no longer be avoided. The differences are significant, and irreconcilable.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
The language used by the Clarity Church people is very telling, and I’m a little surprised that Rod did not pick up on the nuance. It is not enough to be tolerant, but instead, churches must be “affirming.”
This is really the key to the discussion of “gay rights” and the ideology that people are expected to hold to, to avoid being pariahs. You either fully accept all aspects of homosexuality (transgenderism, etc), or you’re the enemy. There’s no middle ground any longer. Tolerance is not enough. You must fully accept it, and I suppose affirmation is basically on the same level as celebrating it. If you don’t, you’re a dirty homophobe.
In a way, it is refreshing to see this schism occur. The churches that come down on the side of orthodoxy will have yet another reminder that they cannot any longer find acceptance and esteem in the mainstream public eye. The question is how they choose to use this awareness, either growing in what is a soft persecution, or caving to popular pressure.
Oh, maybe I wasn’t clear enough. Yes, this website starts out as a consumer service (it claims), but as others say, it will be ultimately be used to pressure, shame, and ultimately to persecute dissenting congregations — all in the name of social justice. If you don’t recognize this by now, reader, you are hopelessly ineducable on the matter. I welcome the Church Clarity site because it clears away the obfuscation and wishful thinking about what’s really going on in this struggle, and what’s really at stake in trying to be a faithful Christian in our time. Church Clarity accelerates the contradictions.
UPDATE.2: If you don’t read the whole Church Clarity blog, you’ll miss them saying that they are going to use this data to make sure that churches “earn” their tax-exempt status. Translation: data collected will ultimately be used in a federal civil rights lawsuit against dissenting churches. There it is. This was always in the cards. It was never about tolerance, but coercion. With Church Clarity, we now have, well, clarity.